Of Dr. Cotton's early history no account has been given by his numerous relations. From a passage in one of his letters that will be mentioned hereafter, it may be concluded with some degree of probability, that he was born in the year 1707, but in what county, or of what family, is not known. He studied physic under the celebrated Boerhaave, at Leyden, and is supposed to have taken his degree at that university, which was then the first medical school in Europe, and the resort of all who wished to derive honour from the place of their education.
On his return he endeavoured to establish himself as a general practitioner, but circumstances leading him more particularly to the study of the various species of lunacy, he was induced to become the successor of a Dr. Crawley, who kept a house for the reception of lunatics at Dunstable, in Bedfordshire; and having engaged the housekeeper, and prevailed on the patients' friends to consent to their removal, he opened a house for their reception at St. Alban's.
Here he continued for some years, adding to his knowledge of the nature of mental disorders, and acquiring considerable fame by the success and humanity of his mode of treatment. When his patients began to increase, he found it necessary to hire a larger house, where he formed a more regular establishment, and dignified it by the name of The College. His private residence was in St. Peter's street in the town of St. Alban's, and was long known as the only house in that town defended from the effects of lightning by a conductor.
The cares of his college, and the education of his numerous family, occupied near the whole of his long life. His poems and prose pieces were probably the amusement of such hours as he could snatch from the duties of his profession. He carried on also an extensive correspondence with some of the literary characters of the day, by whom, as well as by all who knew him, he was beloved for his amiable and engaging manners. Among others, he corresponded with Dr. Doddridge, and appears to have read much and thought much on subjects which are usually considered as belonging to the province of divines.
He is not known to have produced any thing of the medical kind, except a quarto pamphlet, entitled Observations on a particular kind of Scarlet Fever that lately prevailed in and about St. Alban's, 1749. The dates of some of his poetical pieces show, that he was an early suitor to the muses. His Visions in Verse were first published in 1751, again in 1764, and frequently since. He contributed likewise a few pieces to Dodsley's collection. A complete collection of his productions, both in prose and verse, was published in 1791, 2 vols. 12mo, by one of his sons, but without any memoir of the author. For much of what is now given, I am indebted to a correspondent in the Gentleman's Magazine, who appears to have known Dr. Cotton, and kindly and readily answered the inquiries I sent to that never-failing source of literary information.
Dr. Cotton was twice married; first, about the year 1738, to Miss Anne Pembroke, sister to George Pembroke, esq. formerly of St. Alban's, receiver-general for the county of Hertford, and to Joseph Pembroke, town-clerk of St. Alban's. By this lady, who died in 1749, he had issue, 1. Mary, who became the second wife of John Osborn, esq. of St. Alban's, and died without issue, Nov. 2, 1790; 2. Anne, who became the second wife of major Brooke of Bath, and died July 13, 1800, leaving a son and daughter, since dead; 3. Nathaniel, who was entered of Jesus college, Cambridge, where he proceeded B.A. 1766, and M.A. 1769, and is now vicar of Welford, in Northamptonshire; 4. Joseph, now a director of the honourable least India company; 5. Phebe, married to George Bradshaw, esq. since dead; 6. Katherine, who died unmarried, Dec. 2, 1780, and is buried under an altar tomb in the churchyard of St Peter's, St. Alban's, with the two following lines under her name:
Time was, like thee, she life possess'd,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.
He had also by his first wife, a son and daughter, who died in infancy. He married, secondly, in 1750, or 1751, Miss Hannah Everett, who died May 1772, leaving a son, now living, and two daughters, since dead.
From his letters it appears, that about the year 1780 his health was greatly impaired. He was much emaciated, and his limbs so weak as to be insufficient to support his weight. The languors, likewise, which he suffered, were so frequent and severe, as to threaten an entire stop to the circulation, and were sometimes accompanied with that most distressing of all sensations, an anxiety "circa praecordia." His memory too began to fail, and any subject which required a little thought was a burthen hardly supportable. He died August 2, 1788, and we are told his age was so far unknown, that the person who entered his burial in the parish register, wrote after his name, "eighty-eight at least." In a letter, however, written on the death of his daughter Katherine, in 1780, he says, "he had passed almost three winters beyond the usual boundary appropriated to human life, and had thus transcended the longevity of a septuagenarian." This, therefore, will fix his age at eighty-one, or eighty-two.
He was interred with his two wives in St. Peter's church-yard, under an altar tomb between those of his two daughters, Mary and Katherine, on which nothing more is inscribed than "Here are deposited the remains of Anne, Hannah, and Nathaniel Cotton."
If we have few particulars of the life of Dr. Cotton, we have many testimonies to the excellence of his character. We find from Mr. Hayley's Life of Cowper, that he had at one time among his patients, that amiable and interesting poet, who speaks of Dr. Cotton's services in a manner that forms a noble tribute to his memory. The letter in which this passage occurs, is dated July 4, 1765.
"I reckon it one instance of the Providence that has attended me throughout this whole event, that instead of being delivered into the hands of one of the London physicians, who were so much nearer that I wonder I was not, I was carried to Dr. Cotton. I was not only treated by him with the greatest tenderness while I was ill, and with the utmost diligence, but when my reason was restored to me, and I had so much need of a religious friend to converse with, to whom I could open my mind upon the subject without reserve, I could hardly have found a fitter person for the purpose. My eagerness and anxiety to settle my opinions upon that long-neglected point, made it necessary, that while my mind was yet weak, and my spirits uncertain, I should have some assistance. The doctor was as ready to administer relief to me in this article likewise, and as well qualified to do it as in that which was more immediately his province. How many physicians would have thought this an irregular appetite, and a symptom of remaining madness! But if it were so, my friend was as mad as myself, and it is well for me that he was so."
Mr. Hayley says, that Dr. Cotton was "a scholar and a poet, who added to many accomplishments, a peculiar sweetness of manners, in very advanced life," when Mr. Hayley had the pleasure of a personal acquaintance with him. In a subsequent part of his Life of Cowper, the latter, alluding to an inquiry respecting Dr. Cotton's works, pays the following compliment to his abilities: "I did not know that he had written any thing newer than his Visions: I have no doubt that it is so far worthy of him as to be pious and sensible, and I believe no man living is better qualified to write on such subjects as his title seems to announce. Some years have passed since I heard from him, and considering his great age, it is probable that I shall hear from him no more: but I shall always respect him. He is truly a philosopher, according to my judgment of the character, every tittle of his knowledge in natural subjects being connected in his mind with the firm belief of an omnipotent agent."
To these testimonies, which can be corroborated by a perusal of his writings, little need be added. His writings, indeed, are uniformly in favour of piety and benevolence, and his correspondence, from which many extracts are given in the late edition of his Works, justifies the high respect in which he was held by his numerous friends. His prose pieces consist of reflections on some parts of scripture, which he has entitled Sermons; and various essays on health, husbandry, zeal, marriage, and other miscellaneous topics. One of these, entitled Mirza to Selim (an imitation of Lyttelton's Persian Letters) is said to relate to the death of the Rev. Robert Romney, D.D. vicar of St. Alban's, which happened in 1743. When dying, this gentleman prophesied that his brother and heir would not long enjoy his inheritance, which proved true, as he died in June 1746. Some of these essays were probably written for the periodical journals, and others for the amusement of private friends.
His abilities as a poet demand no parade of criticism. He appears to have written with ease, and had a happy turn for decorating his reflections in familiar verse: but we find very little that is original, fanciful, or vigorous. He scarcely ever attempts imagery, or description, and nowhere rises beyond a certain level diction adapted to the class of readers whom he was most anxious to please. Yet his Visions have been popular, and deserve to continue so. Every sensible and virtuous mind acquiesces in the truth and propriety of his moral reflections, and will love the poems for the sake of the writer.